FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- As the sack numbers pile up against the Atlanta offense, no one suffers more than Chris Chandler.
The 36-year-old Falcons quarterback absorbed nine sacks, a single-game career high, in a 28-10 loss to New Orleans last week. Atlanta has allowed 48 sacks, tied with winless Detroit for most in the NFL.
"I think the line can do a better job," Chandler said Wednesday. "I can do a better job - receivers, everyone involved in an offense has a part in a sack most of the time. It's something we've all got to improve on."
Sack totals don't convey just how horribly the Falcons have been in pass protection. Allowing a sack every 8.2 passing plays, Atlanta is faring considerably worse than Seattle, which ranks 30th with a 9.5 ratio. Jacksonville ranks 29th with a 9.8, followed by Cleveland's 10.5 and Detroit's 10.6.
The Falcons (6-6) will take a two-game losing streak to Indianapolis (4-8) on Sunday.
Breakdowns on the offensive line have coincided with a nearly nonexistent rushing attack. Maurice Smith, who gained only seven yards on 12 carries against the Saints, has been a shell of himself since twisting an ankle at Carolina three weeks ago.
An MRI taken Monday showed Smith to have torn cartilage in his right knee. The second-year running back, who's listed as probable, has started nine straight games since Jamal Anderson's season ended with a torn ACL. Smith insisted Wednesday he's not too hurt to play, despite gaining 41 yards in his last 37 carries.
"All I know is I feel better than I have the last three weeks," Smith said. "My mobility is not as good as it was before then. You just have to alter that and have a keener sense of awareness. Be more visual. I don't think it's a matter of me proving. It's just a matter of me wanting to play."
Coach Dan Reeves has discussed using fullback Bob Christian on more running plays, as well as making more using of backup running back Rodney Thomas.
Regardless of the personnel, the Falcons have struggled to establish a running game for three years. They lost Anderson to a torn ACL in the second game of 1999 and finished 30th with a rushing average of 74.8 yards. Last year Atlanta had Anderson back, but still managed only a 75.9 average that ranked 28th.
The Falcons netted only 50 yards on the ground last week - their lowest output since Oct. 8, 2000, when they set a franchise low with 13 yards against the New York Giants. Smith and the offense had a good start against New Orleans. He finished a nine-play, 71-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run and a 7-0 lead.
"We do that and we feel like, 'Here we go. We're getting on a roll,' " Smith said. "Then all of a sudden the bottom drops out."
The offensive line had its worst day of the year. Left guard Bob Hallen was called for holding in the second quarter, a penalty that wiped out Chandler's 55-yard touchdown pass to Terance Mathis. Rookie right guard Kynan Forney struggled for the third straight week. Right tackle Ephraim Salaam twisted his ankle in the fourth quarter and didn't return.
He is listed as questionable.
"You can't take a whole lot of pride when you're giving up that many sacks," center Todd McClure said. "It's something we have to solve and fix. The quarterback's taking so many hits. I think the effort's there. Guys that are out on the field - you can see it on film - they're playing hard. Mentally, that's where we've struggled."
Defenses know the Falcons usually lose without strong play from Chandler. They are 2-13 since the 1998 Super Bowl when he leaves a game with an injury or is too hurt to start. Though he played the entire game last week, Chandler was ineffective, as the line allowed him to get hit 16 times in addition to the sacks. He faced 16 blitzes and was forced to make 13 hurried passes.
"The Saints did a good job, basically," Chandler said. "They were able to put a lot of pressure on us, and that just really hurts an offense."
Notes: Salaam did not practice Wednesday. Travis Claridge worked at right tackle with first offense. ... Defensive end Brady Smith (oblique muscle) also missed practice. ... The Falcons are 1-10 in their series with the Colts. ... Christian suffered a deep cut in his right elbow that required eight stitches.
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